A Prisoners’ Rights Plague That Kills from the Inside

A Prisoners’ Rights Plague That Kills from the Inside

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By Christopher Zoukis 

There is a plague in the prisoners’ rights community that will destroy us all, from the inside out, if we don’t find a cure.  Slowly it creeps into our minds, then our interactions and advocacy, and finally our organizational policies.  It’s like institutional racism, just of a different breed.  This is the disease of selectivity, of triaging the freedom of various groups of prisoners, and it is very prevalent.

As I sit to write this, I’m coming off an intense few days.  Someone I trust and respect shared their thoughts concerning prisoners — more specifically, prisoners convicted of violent and sex related offenses.  In her mind, there was perhaps no punishment strong enough or complete enough to adequately fulfill retribution for these sorts; to say nothing about the social stigmatization of having contact with these sorts.  While I was saddened to hear this, I was heartened that she isn’t a prisoners’ rights warrior, but more of someone who works in this field due to circumstances — a reliable and dedicated helper, but not a true believer.  In any prisoners’ rights organization, there are bound to be a few of these non-true believers who are incredibly hard workers but do not share our zeal for reform.  She is one of them.

While my personal interactions concerning this were unfortunate — after all, I am a true believer in the power of education and rehabilitation to reform even the most damaged of characters — what is alarming is that there are actual organizations in the national spotlight that do the exact same thing.  In fact, there are several name brand prisoners’ rights organizations which plainly refuse to advocate for all prisoners, and instead focus on very targeted groups.  While this is their prerogative, it’s more harmful than many believe.

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The problem with cherry picking targeted groups of prisoners to help is that it then leaves intact the problems in America’s criminal justice system, while making people think that meaningful change has occurred.  Right now, the darling of the media, along with several larger prisoners’ rights groups and politicians, is first-time, non-violent drug offenders.  How many first-time, non-violent drug offenders do you think there are?  Not many.  Most observes number them at less than ten percent of the total population.  Recent federal legislation focused on this group — for example, the Smarter Sentencing Act and the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act of 2013 — works to the detriment of the cause as a whole.  After all, if we’ve passed several bills to help perhaps three or four thousand federal prisoners, then our job is done, right?  Wrong!  By helping a few thousand federal prisoners, we’re forgetting about the larger problem, which is the way that we treat the other 216,000 federal prisoners.

When we cherry pick groups of prisoners to help, the groups selected tend to be the easiest pill to swallow.  We’re talking about those with minimal criminal history, no real history of violence, and the most palatable crimes.  When we help this group, we feel as though our job is done.  We feel as though we’ve accomplished something when, in fact, we have harmed our chances at larger reforms which have the power to effect hundreds of thousands of prisoners — if not millions, when the state prison systems are included — and millions of their children, siblings, and parents.  We find small successes in spite of ourselves and the very groups we profess to agitate for.  This is plainly unacceptable.

Today, the Prison Law Blog calls on everyone in the prisoners’ rights industries to stand tall and strong with us in our call for communal action.  Stand with us as we defend all prisoners, regardless of their crimes, criminal histories, race, socioeconomic backgrounds, and whatever other factors those in our industry use to divide and defeat the whole.  This is the only way.  This is the correct way.  And this is what the Prison Law Blog stands for: justice for all, however much we might like their criminal history or not.  To do anything other than this is an affront to the very principles we purport to hold so dear.